Australian of the Year 2016 finalist Elizabeth Broderick’s plan for gender equality

Vacancy: Previous sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick. Photo: Alex EllinghausenAustralian of the Year finalists: Elizabeth BroderickDavid MorrisonWill MacGregorCatherine McGregorJulian McMahonJohn GreenwoodJane HutchinsonAnne Carey

Elizabeth Broderick has stormed the boardrooms of Australia asking them to take gender equality seriously. She has pioneered part-time work in her own corporate career. And spoken publicly of her personal experiences of sexual harassment and aim as a working mother to be a “guilt-free zone”.

She has also advocated for paid parental leave (before a scheme existed) and for a greater focus on domestic violence (when it wasn’t a mainstream issue).

But when her name was called out as the NSW Australian of the Year in November, it was a total surprise to the former sex discrimination commissioner.

“I could never have imagined at any time that I’d find myself in this place,” Broderick says. “It’s like, ‘what?'”

Others clearly have no such difficulties seeing her in the role: it was 2015 Australian of the Year Rosie Batty who nominated her for the award.

For her part, Broderick is full of praise for the work that Batty has done to try to end domestic violence since she first made headlines over the murder of her son Luke.

“I just think she’s been a gift to Australia,” she says, adding that efforts around domestic violence and equality more broadly need to continue in 2016.

Here, she is heartened that her fellow nominees include David Morrison, who has been outspoken about respect for women in the military, and Catherine McGregor, an advocate for the transgender community.

“It shows that we’ve shifted as a nation, these issues [of diversity and inclusion] are coming more into the forefront of our thinking.”

Broderick finished up at the Human Rights Commission last year, after eight years as Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

Here, one of her most high profile achievements was the Male Champions of Change program, which began when she picked up the phone and called about 20 of the most powerful men she knew in corporate Australia. The aim was to get them and their organisations – such as Qantas and the big banks – to promote gender equality.

While Broderick is not seeking to downplay the importance of women’s activism, she argues, “gender equality is not just a women’s issue”.

The former corporate lawyer, who has been enjoying a break and time with her family since her term ended, is making plans about what to do next.

Whatever she does, however, she wants to keep taking the message of gender equality “into the most unexpected places”.

“I want to go where other people don’t want to go.”

She describes the NSW award as an “incredible platform” that is also a “huge responsibility”.

“It’s started me thinking, ‘well, we can be a nation where equality lies at the heart'”.

And she remains optimistic that the necessary change will happen.

She looks back on how her mother, a physiotherapist, had to leave paid work when she had children. And how a generation later, when her own daughter was born, there was no paid parental leave and domestic violence was “in the shadows”.

“So many things have shifted,” Broderick says. “We can have faith in the possibility of change. We can do it.”

The Australian of the Year will be announced on Monday evening.

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